The 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is still considered to be the best of the film franchise. This weekend fans will have an opportunity to watch a virtual screening of the film so TrekMovie thought it was a good opportunity to talk to producer Robert Sallin, who director Nicholas Meyer calls an unsung hero of The Wrath of Khan.
Interview with Robert Sallin
This was your first feature film as a producer, how did you get involved?
I had been a director all my life, particularly in the world of advertising where I had opened up my own production company. Over a couple of decades, I had directed around 2,000 commercials.
I had gone to UCLA film school with Harve Bennett, and he’d approached me a number of times over the years to direct episodic television and movies of the week, and I did the occasional show with him. By the early 80s, I had burned out on commercials and Harve approached me after he just got himself a deal at Paramount television and he had three projects, one of which was Star Trek.
Star Trek [The Motion Picture] had originally been in the feature division with [director] Robert Wise and [producer] Gene Roddenberry. It had gone so vastly over budget, really budgeted around $24 million, and my understanding was it came in at something like $44 million or more, largely due to discord on the set, and a major part was due to them not knowing what they were doing with visual effects. So, I came on board to produce [Star Trek II]. I must confess this was new to me although I had run my own company, and in the commercial world, you really gain a sense of how to run things at a profit and contain costs.
How did things work practically between Harve and yourself?
He was busy working on his other two projects and working only peripherally on Star Trek. We started to get writers in and explore concepts. Harve was taking point on the story development with the writers, but I was there for every meeting and offered my notes. As time went on, I became very concerned. I thought the road they were going down was not good and felt it was not a sound idea, and kind of hokey. I voiced my concerns but Harve was titularly my boss, so I was a good executive officer and supportive in every way I could; but in my soul, I knew we were headed for trouble.
As time went on and stories were developed, I began to storyboard action sequences and characters, along with Mike Minor who I hired as art director along with Joe Jennings who were two terrific and talented guys. At the same time, I shouldered all the responsibility for actually mounting the production. The first thing I did was the old intelligence trick of interrogating the prisoners in separate cells. I interviewed every crew member I could find who had worked on Star Trek [The Motion Picture] and gained enormous insight into what worked and didn’t work, including the dynamics—philosophical and practical and creative.
What were some of your findings on how the first Star Trek movie didn’t work?
From what I was told, you had Gene and Bob Wise at loggerheads and the changes that were coming down were not just weekly or daily but hourly. The pages were arriving as they were shooting scenes. That is not the way to make a picture. Also, conceptually—and remember I was not a Star Trek guy—I felt the first one was too distant. It obviously appealed to the people inside Star Trek, but from my perspective, it was a remote picture. It was a sci-fi exercise. I didn’t care about the people. I did not care what happened to them. So I felt, and [director] Nick [Meyer] agreed, to make the focus about human beings. The story is not about sci-fi or some obscure person with mystical powers, it is about human beings and the drama about Kirk getting old and things like that.
So, returning to your early development, at what point did Nick Meyer get involved?
While I worked with Harve as he was focused on the story, I assembled a crew. In addition to the art directors, I hired [cinematographer] Gayne Rescher, I hired the editor Bill Dornisch, I set up the whole production. And of course, it was also my job to find a director. Unfortunately, there was an impending Directors Guild strike and I was assembling a list of directors that was a wish list, but they had to be guys by and large who came from the television world, because this production was under the aegis of the television division at Paramount, no longer the feature division. It was scaled to be a television movie but looked like a feature.
Was there ever any consideration by Paramount to make it a movie of the week for television, or was it always intended for theatrical distribution, but being made by the TV division to save money?
My understanding was the latter. Guys in television know how to do things cheaper and faster, and that is why I was brought in because I knew cost control.
Back to picking a director…
Because of the impending DGA strike, I drew up two lists. One was of people who worked in television who had done some really good work, and I also drew up a list of English directors, because I thought the English had done some really stunning work and I thought that would be an interesting take on this project.
One was a director named Hugh Hudson, who had directed a film called Chariots of Fire. I got the senior executives together to show them this movie which had just come out. I will never forget how the three of us sat down in the huge projection room at Paramount and ran the picture and the lights came up and they turned to me and said: “So?” And I thought I might be in the wrong business because I thought the film was dynamite and it went on to win the Academy Award [for Best Picture, with Hudson nominated for Best Director].
After the strike talk simmered down what I found was a lot of the directors on my list didn’t want to do it. They didn’t want to do a sequel. They didn’t want to do Star Trek. They didn’t want to do science fiction. Or they weren’t available. There was an expression of interest from a young guy named Ron Howard. He came in to meet us and he was just terrific. I thought he was so bright, and he loves Star Trek. He left the room and I turned to Harve and said, “I really like this guy, he can really bring something fresh and new to this.” And Harve was like “No, don’t want him, he is a kid,” even though he had already directed some movies of the week, one of which I had seen and thought it was a stunning piece of work and way beyond what a so-called “kid” would have done. That is why I was so enthusiastic, but I got shot down.
Nick Meyer wasn’t on your original list?
No. After fumbling around and facing all these rejections, my assistant Deborah turned to me and said, “Have you ever thought about Nick Meyer?” I didn’t know him personally, but I did admire The Seven-Per-Cent Solution [1976 film written by Meyer based on his novel] and his first feature [Time After Time, which he directed]. He was not terribly experienced, but he had something. As I was a member of the Director’s Guild, I figured I could lend support if any problems arose—which they did, by the way.
After sending him the script and meeting with him it was obvious to me that he saw the failings of the script that I saw, and he got it. So, I told Harve I had found the guy, he is fantastic and really understands this. We met up again, this time with Harve, and after, Harve said to me, “This guy is going to be trouble.” I didn’t see it. All I saw was an incredibly bright guy who had an extraordinary take on this material and could breathe some life into what I considered its otherwise blue lips. Harve and I had a bit of a disagreement and went at it, but the long and the short of it is that I got my way, because I told the studio what I wanted to do.
We brought Nick on board, and he saw all the flaws in the script. To his credit, his uncredited and unpaid twelve-day rewrite of what I thought was a disastrous script is what we shot. And he literally saved the franchise and certainly saved the picture.
You have talked about the hurdles faced while making this film. Was there a point you realized you had a big success on your hands, or was that not until it was released?
Very astute question. To be candid, my recollection is that I was so immersed in the making of it and the challenges and dealing with the problems, some of which were ludicrous, I didn’t think about. I felt we were creating something good. But the level of success, I never anticipated.
Another hurdle you had was convincing Leonard Nimoy to appear.
When we finished the script, Leonard didn’t want to do it. Leonard was a fine actor and wanted to explore other things. And all of his professional life had been defined by Spock. There are worse things that can happen to an actor, but I’ll never forget what he said to me: “I don’t want to put the ears on again.” And it was [screenwriter] Jack Sowards who suggested, “What if we killed him off?” And I said, “Whoa, that is a great idea!” And we met with Leonard and he said, “Oh!” That gives him a chance to play in the ultimate dying scene and all that stuff, so he agreed.
Then the proverbial stuff hit the fan. It was leaked by Gene Roddenberry’s assistant, Susan Sackett. The furor it kicked up you cannot imagine. When that word got out there was such an uproar, I came home one day and on my answering machine a voice said, “You kill Spock, and we’ll kill you.” I had two little kids and a wife, so we had to have security at our house because of some nutcase. [laughs]
Then Leonard did a one-eighty. We gave him the ammunition; what we said was, “This is science fiction, and there are different kinds of death in science fiction.” I left it at that, and that when we evolved the idea that he was going to die, but we were going to leave the clue that maybe that wasn’t a permanent situation. And that is when it came time to do that ending sequence.
Did you have much or any direct interaction with Gene Roddenberry?
Very little. I met him and chatted with him and we would send drafts of the script to him and keep him in the loop. We even did it for things like wardrobe. We did it out of courtesy. He sent voluminous memos to Harve, to me, to Nick, and he just wasn’t happy with anything that was going on. It wasn’t the kind of picture he would make. He didn’t like the uniforms; he thought they were too military. My rejoinder to him was, “You have to have a military organization to make things run efficiently.” I’m a dual veteran of the Marine Corps and the Air Force, so I know this stuff, but he didn’t buy it.
As a producer, you deal with a lot of constituencies. When making the film, which one did you think about the most? Was it the hardcore fans, the critics, the general moviegoing public, or the suits at Paramount?
The greatest pressure was some of the people at Paramount. But my focus was really on how good of a story can I tell. I came from a place having had a dramatic background before advertising, was the belief that if you have a great story, the people will come to it. That was always on my core. I kept focused on how I can help tell this story. Yes, there was always this enormous pressure from some of the studio people, not all. And to be candid, a lot of it was just the way studios do things.
I knew my craft, but what I didn’t know and what they didn’t train me for at UCLA, was the business. I’ll give you an example: I drew up a budget along with the studio-assigned production manager, Marvin Miller—a great guy. I had designed every one of the visual effects, the battle in space, and all that stuff with Mike Minor. We got this budget done and I submitted it to the powers that be, and I come from advertising where you give the budget to the client and that is the budget unless they change something. So, I am very careful with that and I never lost a dime.
I budgeted it at $13 million and I send it up to them and the guy throws it back across the desk and says, “We aren’t going to do this unless you can take a million dollars off of it.” I said, “Guys, this is really what it is going to cost.” And they said, “No, no, you have to take a million dollars out or we are not going to do the picture.” I said, “Fine, don’t do it, pay me off and I will leave.” They said no and sent me off to find a million to take out. I was furious and went back to Marvin Miller and he laughed and said, “They do this all the time, that is just what they do.” He told me to just tell them it is $12 million. I said, “But that is a lie,” and he said, “Yeah, but that is just what they do.” So, when people asked me what I learned when I did Star Trek, I learned how to lie. I went in and lied, and what did the picture cost? $13 million.
The budget was obviously a constraining factor in making this film, but you still took a lot of time and effort to make some changes in the production design, and of course, totally changed those costumes. Why was that so important when facing the budget limits?
Well, there are two parts to that. You have to first ask yourself; do I want to use this? If I want to use it, do I want to use it the way it was or change it? If I want to change it, do I have enough money in the budget to change it? That was my process, so if it was a change we could afford, we did it. If there was a change we couldn’t afford, I sucked it up.
The reason I pushed so hard on the costumes was I thought the wardrobe on [Star Trek: The Motion Picture] was horrible. I thought they looked like Dr. Dentons [old-fashioned pajamas]. And I went to [costume designer] Bob Fletcher and said, “What can I save?” And he said we could maybe save the pants. And I wanted to do a dye test to see a range of colors, so we can see what would feel the richest. He did some tests and we came up with that [maroon] color. Then it came to the overall design and Nick wanted something like Prisoner of Zenda with its 1800s Austro-Hungarian look with those high fixed collars. I thought that was kind of corny, so I suggested taking the collars off the jacket and use turtlenecks underneath, with different colors for different departments. And Bob Fletcher had this machine which made that quilted look and that’s what we did.
In terms of other things, I found ways we could reuse things. Like the [Regula I] space station was originally from the first picture, but what I did is turn it upside down. I thought nobody is going to know and most people didn’t catch it. So that is one thing we didn’t have to build.
We did a detailed inventory of all of those models and figured out what bits we could use and talked to ILM who wanted to re-rig some of the models and I figured we could afford to do that. And then I used a lot of footage from the previous picture, like for the docking and that sort of stuff, but integrated into a new environment and new story and nobody said anything about it. Either it didn’t bother them, or they didn’t get it.
Another new thing you did was to use video instead of film for bridge monitors and some CGI, which was pretty new at the time. Were these creative choices, or more cost savings?
Those are two separate things.
When I saw the bridge for the first time, I didn’t understand why it was built as one piece, as it makes things hard to shoot. It turns out it was not actually one piece but built into pie segments. I was told Bob Wise wanted the actors to feel they were in that confined space, to contribute to their performance. And I said, “That’s terrific, but Bob Wise isn’t doing this picture; take it all apart.” So every pie-wedge section became mobile again, they were all on wheels, and you could light it right without burning up the actors, and you had freedom of movement.
In terms of the monitors, they were on projectors and I said, “What!?” The noise was one problem, and the other problem was syncing when you were trying to do coverage. So, you shoot one angle and the monitors are doing one thing and you do another angle change and those things are still in the background, we had a terrible time syncing all that up. I said, “They are all going away, we are doing this with monitors and video, and we are going to have time codes and it will all line up perfectly.” That was something I dumped onto my associate producer Bill Phillips and it worked very well, and they have been doing it ever since.
As for that one scene [the Genesis Device animation], I really wanted to do that on a computer. And the ILM guys said they had never done that before. But I knew the technology existed. I knew computers were capable of more than the way they were being used at that point. So I laid down the law there because I wanted something different. And when I told them that, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. They swallowed hard and said “Okay.” That 60-second shot cost about $250,000 out of the budget, but even though I didn’t originally have it budgeted, we made up the difference elsewhere. They ended up subcontracting that out and they would do the inputs during the day and at night they would link like 200 personal computers together to render it because they didn’t have the computing power in those days. So that was the genesis, pardon the pun, of that sequence, and I was very pleased with it.
If you had a bigger budget like they had for the first one, would you have done things differently?
Not from my perspective. I got what I wanted and didn’t mind squeezing to do it. Sure, we could have bought a few more lunches.
One thing we would have done would go outside for locations, but we never left the lot, except for that end sequence, which I directed, on the Genesis Planet with Spock’s coffin. So no, it was just an exercise in cinematic discipline.
In an interview I did with Nick a few years ago we talked about you as an “unsung hero” of the film. I was surprised to hear how hands-on you would get when it came to framing specific shots, like how Kirk enters the bridge. This kind of thing didn’t ever create the feeling you were backseat driving?
No, no, no. I put my directing hat in a basket. But I was on the set every day that I wasn’t up at ILM. What I was there for was to provide help when needed. I did not tell Nick how to shoot.
Okay, well I did with a couple of things, like Kirk’s entrance. What I said to Nick as a suggestion—not a mandate—when Kirk enters that bridge it has to be the second coming. So, when those doors open with all the smoke from the exercise, what you want to do is have him stand for a moment and take a brute, that is a huge light, and place it directly behind him. So when he comes in and raises his hands, there are going to be fingers of light and shadow.
You have talked a bit about some of the drama behind the scenes, was there any of that on the set with the cast?
No, the cast was a delight to work with. They know their roles; they know what to do. They would come onto the set and they were good, sometimes a little casual, but good. And then came the day when we brought Ricardo [Montalban] on board. And he did this nine-minute master shot without a cut and he was fabulous. He really nailed it. I think we only had to do one take; it was that good. So, the next day Bill and Leonard, oh boy they were sharp! They had their lines learned; they were on their marks. It was like playing with a great tennis player and suddenly your game gets ratcheted up. It was very cute to see a little shift in the attitude in how they worked.
You were asked to stay on and produce more Star Trek films but declined. Do you regret that?
Yes. But I will be honest with you; I was burned out and I had been in battles the likes of which I was unaccustomed to fight. But I was gratified the work was progressing and it was coming out of something I was very proud of.
While we were in dubbing I was called up to the head of Paramount Television’s office and he said, “This is going to be good, we like what you have done, would you like to stay on and do more?” And I said I would like to think about it and asked, “What about Harve?” And his exact words were, “We want Harve doing television.” I went home and had a sleepless night was because I had to consider that even though Harve and I had come to loggerheads over a variety of things, deep within where I live I couldn’t bring myself to cut the legs off a guy who had given me the chance to produce a picture. Call it an acute attack of Judeo-Christian morality, but I couldn’t do it, and I turned it down. In retrospect, one of the two major blunders in my professional life.
Have you been keeping up with the Star Trek films in recent years and have any thoughts about the films produced by J.J. Abrams, or about the recent news that Noah Hawley has been tapped to write and direct a new film?
I can say this: J.J. Abrams and Noah Hawley are masterful storytellers. Each one has his own take on how to tell a story and what that story should be. Do I agree with everything? No. Would I have done it differently? Probably. But, from a studio perspective, these are accomplished guys.
I do think there has been a general sort of lack to step back and recapture the humanity aspect. A feel a lot of this stuff is a bit forced. Of course, they are made for a different time, these pictures are much later than mine. I don’t see at their core, the heart that we were able to put into Star Trek II.
I am a huge fan of Noah Hawley. I have never met the man, but I respect his work. I think he is a unique creative force. I will be very interested to see what he does. If I knew somebody who knew him I would say, “Let me take Noah to lunch, and let me share with him a couple of the things I learned about Star Trek.” I would love to talk to him about how we made the film that we did. I would even buy him lunch. I think he is a very special talent.
You are still active, can you talk about what you are working on these days?
I am working on some things. One thing I can say that looks very promising is a project on Rasputin. There are a number of other things in the works with some pretty substantial people.
The Wrath of Khan virtual screening on Saturday
Paramount is holding a “virtual screenings” of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on April 25th with CYA.LIVE. Join hosts Mark A. Altman and Daren Dochterman for the event which will allow viewers to watch and interact via text and video with other fans. There will also be a Q&A after the film. The screening cost $1.99 and tickets can be purchased at CYA.LIVE.